Vidal Sassoon had many roles, most know him from hairdressing but his affect on the world is much greater than a few snips and cuts.
Sassoon founded the Vidal Sassoon International Center for the Study of Antisemitism and fought British fascists in the post war period, but nothing I could write would not do justice to this man.
So listen to him, in his own words:
Voices On Antisemitism — A Podcast Series – Vidal Sassoon
Or download the MP3.
These are just a few of his obituaries. Later on, I will add more at the end of the post.
“A Peter Pan-like figure, Sassoon kept forever youthful by practising Pilates and yoga. But besides an interest in aesthetics and physical wellbeing, he also had a deep-rooted sense of justice. He fought against anti-Semitic yobs rampaging around east London after the Second World War and set up a research centre for gathering information about anti-Semitism. He was also generous to charities, such as the Katrina Fund, which gives money to victims of the hurricane that devastated New Orleans.
Vidal Sassoon was born in Hammersmith on January 17 1928. His father Jack was a carpet-trader, his mother Betty, who came from a family of immigrants from Spain, worked in a sweatshop in Whitechapel. Sassoon had a younger brother, Ivor, who died aged 46. Jack, a womaniser, deserted the family when Vidal (who said his father spoke seven languages and made love in all of them) was three.
Lacking money to pay the rent, his mother was evicted, and the family was taken in by her sister in her overcrowded home in a tenement block on Petticoat Lane. Sassoon’s mother then placed him in a Jewish orphanage for seven years. Although conditions there were harsh, he was delighted that, for the first time, he could enjoy a hot bath. His mother was allowed to visit once a month.
During the Second World War, Sassoon briefly worked delivering messages by bike from the City to the docks. When he was 14, his mother, who somehow seems to have had a premonition that he would be a hairdresser, whisked him off to the Whitechapel hair salon of Adolph Cohen, where he worked as a shampoo boy. “
“As he threw himself into his new vocation, Sassoon further cemented his attachment to the Jewish community. “He wasn’t religious, but he was extremely proud to be a Jew, and he was a dedicated Zionist,” Rabbi Elia said. In the immediate post-war years, London’s Jews faced a new threat from the remnants of British Union of Fascists, a Hitlerite party led by Sir Oswald Mosely, whose black-shirted followers had regularly clashed with Jewish immigrants in the East End during the 1930s.
Sassoon recalled England’s hostile political atmosphere earlier this year: “Anti-semitism was absolutely rife,” he said in a podcast for the Holocaust Memorial Museum. “I mean, it was nothing for another kid to say to you, ‘Dirty Jew.’ And although England was a good place to be, especially with Churchill and the fight against the Nazis, there was always that sense of the Jews being second-class citizens.”
In 1947, the fascists again began menacing London, this time under the tutelage of Jeffrey Hamm, head of an organization of thugs calling themselves the “Association of British Ex-Servicemen.” For Sassoon, this was not a fate to be accepted lying down.
As a response to Hamm’s provocations, a gathering of young Jews known as the 43 Group—named for the number of people in the room at their founding—announced that the fight back had begun. Among them was the slender, if wiry, Sassoon. As Hamm’s followers gathered on street corners bellowing that “not enough Jews were burned at Belsen,” Sassoon and his comrades, armed with knives, coshes, and knuckledusters, set about breaking up fascist meetings. In another interview, Sassoon remembered turning up for work one morning with a black eye. “I just tripped on a hairpin,” he explained to the worried customer who had just settled into a barber’s chair for a haircut. “
Update 1: The Times of Israel’s obituary doesn’t show full appreciation of his many activities.
Update 2: The Blaze’s piece is much better.
Update 3: BBC Radio 3’s Night Waves programme covered him in 2011. Night Waves – Vidal Sassoon 16 May 11.
Update 4: The Guardian’s contribution, which barely touches on his anti-fascism, time in Israel or founding an institute to counter antisemitism.
Update 5: Left Foot Forward’s obituary is rich and generous towards Sassoon.
Update 6: Forward, predictably, sees it differently.
Update 8: Another vacant fashion contribution from the Guardian.
Update 9: The New York Times misses out chunks of Sassoon’s life, focusing on hair and trivia.
Update 11: BBC News’s tepid Vidal Sassoon, British-born celebrity hairdresser, dies.
Update 12: Washington Post’s inaccurate summary.
Update 13: Associated Press’s bits and bobs.
Update 14: BBC London News’s audio clip.
Update 15: Bob From Brockley suggests this, Vidal Sassoon And The Left Wing Roots Of Zionism, but I can’t help wonder why someone would write such condescending nonsense. It only shines when compared with the crass post at this Libertarian Communist blog.
A clear case of Mark Twain?